Nobody could call Robin Ventura's transition to managing seamless, but his missteps are all self-contained so far. We can say he struggles talking around a problem, and that The Chris Sale Saga reflected poorly on everybody, and that he doesn't have the bullpen up in time or bunts too much, but theoretically, he could fix all those problems starting today. Perhaps he fixed some of them already.
Setting aside the game strategies and personnel deployment, the White Sox also turned to Ventura in hopes of reducing the extracurricular BS and keep everybody pulling on the same end of the rope, to use a phrase Kenny Williams prefers. In this area, Ventura's record stands taller.
The Sox have made it through spring training and the first seven weeks without an off-the-field incident. I still don't know all that much about Ventura's family, which is awesome. The younger players receive more liberty to act like younger players, which wasn't always the case in previous seasons (hell, Williams praised Sale's confidence upon his return to the rotation). In the latest triumph, a White Sox pitcher successfully defended one of his hitters after a particularly perilous hit-by-pitch.
Now, another key task introduces itself to Ventura beginning today: improvement against the Minnesota Twins. The Sox's problems against Minnesota have been equal parts mental and physical, involving game, message and clubhouse management. An optimist can treat Ventura's complete lack of experience as a total lack of baggage, and here's where a fresh outlook is needed the most.
The first Sox-Twins series arrives at an interesting time. The White Sox are 10-10 against divisional opponents, which is appropriate for a .500 team. They've survived a couple of terrible losses to break even against the Tigers (4-4). They should be beating up Cleveland a little more than they have (5-4, but plus-12 in run differential), and they let the Royals walk away with a series at U.S. Cellular Field. Add it all up, and the Sox have the makings of The Most .500 Team in baseball history.
Now the Twins enter the mix, and how well the White Sox handle the American League's worst team could tell us whether the Sox can make anything more of their season.
Over Ozzie Guillen's eight years as manager, the White Sox went just 67-80 against Minnesota. It seemed closer to 67-180, based on the way the Sox laid down for them during Guillen's second term:
- First four years: 38-36
- Last four years: 29-44
Even when the Twins played like a 99-loss team last year, it took the Sox a long time to realize their rivals were in shambles. Guillen's crew lost seven of its first eight meetings (including Francisco Liriano's rather unimpressive no-hitter), before turning it around enough to salvage a .500 record by the end of the year. The Sox actually had a chance to win the season series, but they didn't act like it. You might remember the game on Aug. 31, when Guillen went out of his way to expose Adam Dunn by pinch-hitting him for Brent Lillibridge in the ninth inning of a one-run game. Oh, and Alex Rios hit for himself. Everybody appreciated that.
The season series also wrapped up with a one-run loss (that game ended with Guillen letting Omar Vizquel hit for himself with two outs in the ninth). So, thanks in part to Guillen putting in all the stops, the Sox still haven't won a season series against the Twins since 2006. Breaking that streak is one of Ventura's most important jobs.
It might be overstating it to say the Sox's record against Minnesota could decide their fate this season, but not by much. The Sox dug themselves a massive hole with ugly play early, including that 1-7 start against the Twins. The Tigers, on the other hand, beat the Twins in eight of their first nine contests.
- Detroit: 54-47
- Cleveland: 51-48, 2 GB
- Chicago: 49-51, 4.5 GB
The Sox were just 4½ games behind Detroit, even though they were 6½ games worse against Minnesota relative to the Tigers.
If the Sox broke even in their first eight games against Minnesota, they would have lagged just 1½ games behind first. If they handled the Twins as well as Detroit did, they would be 1½ games ahead.
Alas, that exercise only lives in the hypothetical world. In reality, the Twins held the Sox's heads underwater, and three days after those standings, Williams traded Edwin Jackson to Toronto, effectively conceding the division.
In a scheduling oddity, the Twins have played just six games against AL Central teams so far. The White Sox already knocked out 20, and no other AL Central team has logged fewer than 15.
That said, the Twins will make up for lost time this week. They start with three games in Chicago, and then they travel home for three against Detroit. After hosting a series against Oakland, they fly out to Cleveland for three games against the Indians.
With a fresh ledger, there's no reason why the Sox can't use the Twins to their advantage this time. They proved they can beat the Twins home or away by taking eight of the last 10, and since Guillen isn't around, chances are the Whtie Sox manager won't be talking his team out of a game before it starts. Then again, even if Ventura had the urge to serve as volunteer marketer, he'd be hard-pressed to find nice things to say, as U-God's preview showed.
Basically, there's no reason why the Sox can't finally beat up on the Twins for once, and we'll see if they're up to the "challenge" this week. Sure, there may only be 18,000 fans cheering them on ("Sox fans should go to more games," writes guy who never has to buy a ticket), but they're not going to solve the attendance problem until they tackle the Minnesota problem first.